A Vision in Vietnam

Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2006

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Finally at the tail end of a long travel day, we were dumped off at a hostel that, while not the one we had planned to crash at initially, featured a good price ($3 for a double room per night!) and friendly staff. A much-needed shower and shave later, we caught our first motorbikes to Citibank. The motorbike is a way of life in Hanoi, with 2-wheelers vastly outnumbering cars and crowding the streets in swells all the hours of the day. Though manic, after a little getting used to it the prospect of crossing the street is not so unsafe, once you pick up on the fact that it is perfectly OK and necessary to walk directly into head-on traffic so long as you take great care to move slowly and deliberately so the swarm can steer around you. At the intersections though it's anyone's game: with two steady streams of machine crossing with no aid aid of traffic control it is every man for himself and it is also not unusual to see small-scale accidents that are resolved by shouting match. Our drivers were good but nothing reminds you that you have no helmet on like winding through mad traffic as if there were no one else on the road while clutching a Vietnamese man on the back of a motorcycle. We survived though (and daresay grew to like riding like a demon on a paper route) and spent the rest of the night with dinner and a foot massage (which is more painful than childbirth, I'm sure of it, at least at this place).
The net morning we set off on a trip to Halong Bay, a UNESCO-protected natural wonder of the world, arranged by our hostel. Halong Bay (H-Bay from now on because I feel that is much more hip, got to keep this travelogue happenin' for the kids) is famous for the many limestone towers jutting at random from the beautiful gem water, the legend having it that the rocks are the backs of dragons who are now resting in the water and didn't want to leave after arriving to defend the Viet people from naval invaders. I certainly would have preferred real dragons but the rocks were a lovely consolation. Apart from the beauty that we set sail through, we also toured a cave lit up by disco lights and featuring natural rock formations that looked strikingly like different animals all gathered around. The legend this time is that all the animals were gathered for the wedding of two of the dragons and then were frozen because something bad went down, kinda like Kill Bill or something. We finished the tour at a floating village and the oddest-looking fruit in the world (dragon fruit as it were) and caught the minibus back to Hanoi.
Once in the hostel again, Ryan and I had a good talk about our travel plans- speaking with others on the H-Bay trip spurred a mental avalanche for me) and out came two epiphanies, for lack of a better term. The first came from looking just down the line: should our itinerary continue as planned for the rest of SE Asia, we'd be moving far too fast without near enough time in any one place. Hearing other travellers' experiences and distraught about the prospect of our fourth long (24-hour-plus) overland journey in less than two weeks to get down to Saigon, we adopted a new vision, simple but important: less places and more time in each place, focusing more on experience than checklist. Thus we began to cut destinations (Cambodia, southern Vietnam, and northern Thailand got the axe this time) knowing that we'd have richer experiences in the places we would hit and that we've more than enough travel in us (knock on wood) to make the other places up later in life.
The second epiphany was more on my end and was somewhat contrary to though still in the spirit of the first. In Hong Kong, Casey had mentioned that she and her friend Lisa would soon be taking a trip to the Philippines and that we'd be more than welcome to join. Now the Philippines was on our initial initial route (OK, along with 100 other places) but was cut during one of our many reality checks while planning at home in the name of coming up with a more manageable and affordable itinerary. However, it was cut in a fairly arbitrary fashion (mostly because it was out of the way of the typical SE Asia backpacker trail) and, as we now had a reason to consider it, Ryan- being a good friend- agreed to wrangle our plans to meet up with Casey once again between Thailand and India (via Malaysia). Contrary to epiphany #1 in that we were simply now substituting places we'd cut with these new ones, but the six days we would be spending with good company in Manila, Cebu, and Bohol qualified the excursion under the meaningful experience clause. Besides, epiphanies can complement each other, can they not? :)
Having spent all night planning and excitedly buying plane tickets here, there, and everywhere (made possible by budget flights from Air Asia), we spent the next day making arrangements for the rest of our now-extended time in and around Hanoi. Given that we'd now be missing out on jungle and hill tribe exploration in northern Thailand, we hoped that we could have a similar experience (as they are roughly at the same latitude) in the area well away from Hanoi in the northern interior of Vietnam. The twist was, and how sensible Ryan agreed to this one I have no idea, I wanted to do it on motorbikes as I'd read a travel article in the NY Times before we left and it just sounded absolutely wicked. The plan had some root in fact as I do in fact hold a motorcycle license in CA that I earned after the proper classroom and field training and passing the DMV's test. It also was a bit of fantasy as I hadn't actually ridden in nearly two years. But, figuring it was just like riding a bicycle (pun in-ten-did), we shopped travel agent to travel agent until we found the situation we wanted: two bikes and one guide, Ryan riding shotgun behind the guide and switching off as he'd learn to ride along the way, that could leave the next morning.
Bike trek set, we wandered for a bit, Ryan checked off Vietnam with the Beefy from Pepperoni's Pizza, and we made our way to the school for the blind where, to raise funds for the school and students, they offer massages by the older students, which also provides one way to earn a living once they graduate. I was very excited because a) our money would go towards a good cause, b) I still had a killer knot in my back from my four months as a desk jockey, and c) I'd read that a blind masseuse has almost magic powers because of the extra sensitivity they develop in their hands. It was, expectations and all, super and I was so relaxed that even Ryan slagging me about getting rubbed down by a dude couldn't phase me.
We made our way back to our hostel to meet the fella who'd be guiding us as we ripped around the mountainside and jungle on motorbikes. We could tell that Dat was a cool customer, only a little older than us and with a strong grasp of both English and a good time. We went over our 5-day itinerary and made plans to meet the following morning, leaving Ryan and I to do a little more travel planning and trying to log into Skype but it kept calling Ryan fraudulent. Resolved to catch some good sleep before our journey was to begin, we first caught the most made-for-Cinemax movie ever (high school kid inherits a blue magazine and learns the true meaning of love and friendship) and drifted off to excitedly anxious dreams of what the next several days' adventure would bring.

Moral of the story: Will our gallant heroes find beauty in the Hills to rival the Bay?
Will their travels take them to even more exotic and exciting destinations?
Will they be able to tame the might Minsk motorcycles?
Keep on dear reader, and stay classy San Diego?
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